Stress and Happiness
By Joel F. Wade - July 18, 2012

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines stress as:

"1) A force exerted when one body or body part presses on, pulls on, pushes against, or tends to compress or twist another body or body part; especially the intensity of this mutual force commonly expressed in pounds per square inch. 2) A physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation."

Stress is not a bad thing; it is part of a dynamic, interesting and engaged life. Anything that you do that involves challenging yourself, confronting situations that require your best efforts or pushing yourself to be at your best will involve a degree of stress.

That said, we all know what it feels like when we have too much stress in our lives. I want to talk today about what to do about that.

Happiness is not the absence of stress; it is living with a degree of stress that you can manage.

When you're faced with too much stress there are two things that you can do:

  • Decrease the amount of stress that you are exposed to.
  • Learn to manage a higher level of stress.

The first option involves limiting the input to your system. The simplest approach to this is to distinguish between those things that you can actually do something about and those things that you cannot. Then do your best to focus most of your energy on those things that you can actually do something about.

For example, if you spend a lot of time watching the news, surfing the Internet and worrying about the state of the country and the world, you are focusing on things you probably can do very little about.

I'm not advocating apathy or ignorance but stress increases with a sense of helplessness or powerlessness in the face of a threat. To manage the stress that you experience, spend less time taking in all of the awful information that the media dumps in your lap, less time feeling helpless in the face of overwhelming circumstances and events and more time finding and taking specific and effective action toward what you want.

You don't have to solve all of the world's problems in order to be effective. Take ten minutes out of the time you would otherwise spend passively watching the news and call or write your representatives directly. Tell them what you want them to do in order to represent you.

Or you could take a few minutes to teach somebody what you know about America's founding principles or principles of Austrian Economics. Or you could contribute to or become involved in an organization that promotes individual liberty.

Take some specific, benevolent and effective action like this and you'll feel less upset about what you see on the news because you know that you've done what you can.

Spend more time taking effective action and less time in activities that make you feel passive, helpless and overwhelmed and you will lower the level of harmful stress in your life.

You can also take stock of your environment to find what increases your stress – do you spend a lot of time commuting? Are you in a physical environment that overloads your senses or in which you feel threatened? These are things that you may be able to change.

The second option involves what you do within yourself to deal with stress.

One very simple but profound thing you can do is to breathe. Of course, you've been breathing all your life or you wouldn't be here to read this. But if your breath is shallow and high in your chest you are doing the kind of breathing that one does when in danger. The signal you're giving yourself through such breathing is, "I'm in danger," which is a stressful thing to feel.

If you're doing this, just shift your breathing into your belly (so that you're using your diaphragm, which pushes your belly out with the inhale) and slow and deepen your breathing somewhat. Don't breathe too deeply or quickly – you don't want to hyperventilate – but just use an easy, fuller breath.

Changing your breathing like this can have an almost immediate calming effect.

Another thing that you can do is to practice relaxing when you're not stressed out – yoga, meditation, prayer or other activities can all relax you and increase your positive feelings. If you spend time practicing such things then when you find yourself in a more stressful situation you will have readily established pathways to calm yourself.

Regular exercise can also lower your overall stress level and increase your tolerance for stress. There are so many psychological and physical benefits to regular exercise – from decreasing anxiety, to preventing and relieving depression, to increasing your overall health and resilience – that I really can't recommend regular exercise enough.

Finally, one of the most effective strategies for managing stress is to make plans.

Making plans is like preventative stress management. If you know what have to accomplish in a given day, week, month or year, then you'll be less likely to get caught by surprise and overwhelmed by something you hadn't prepared for. If you can map out specific and doable tasks that you need to complete along the way, doing so will help you to feel competent and effective.

Making and keeping a list of things to do, and keeping that list in a place that you'll actually refer to it, can do wonders for your ability to manage the stress of a busy life.

It's also important to prioritize that list so that you're getting the important things done and not just a whole bunch of little things that don't really move you forward.

If you can adjust the external stress in your life, and then build up your capacity to manage the stress that you do have, you'll be in a much better position to deal with whatever comes your way. And your health will likely benefit as well.

One common mistake that people can make is to confuse stopping your activity with relaxation.

If you have things that need to get done and you try to just stop in order to "relax" it's not very likely that your inactivity will include any kind of stress reduction. Rather, it will be like sitting in your car in the driveway with one foot on the brake and the other foot on the accelerator.

Your anxiety and stress will be high but you won't be getting anywhere. This will not be relaxing to you! To the contrary, you will probably feel more stressed, more helpless and more anxious for this pretend relaxation.

It's much better to map out what needs to be done, and to begin doing those things step by step, in manageable amounts. If you're moving in the right direction – or even if you've mapped out a plan to move in the right direction – it will matter less that you're getting everything done. Once you've accomplished some of what you need to do, then you can relax, with a sense of satisfaction in what you've accomplished.

Stress is not a bad thing. Too little stress can mean a boring and passive life; too much stress can damage your health and ruin your sense of well being. Find a level of stress that's right for you and practice skills that will allow you to cope with more stress when you have to – or when you want to.

The key is to be conscious about what you're doing and to actively manage your level of stress for a happier life.

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